During the Eighties and early-to-mid Nineties, the film industry of Hong Kong seemed unstoppable. In the domestic market, box office revenues were growing year-over-year, while in the international markets, the unique blend of action and style prevalent in the Colony's films had a growing and loyal base of fans worldwide. It was also during this period that a number of the stars of the Hong Kong film industry became established. In the realm of directors, names such as John Woo ("Face/Off"), Ringo Lam ("Maximum Risk"), Tsui Hark ("Knock-off"), Kirk Wong ("The Big Hit"), Ronny Yu ("Bride of Chucky"), and Wong Kar-wai ("Fallen Angels") became part of the lexicon of popular culture. Among actors, Chow Yun-Fat (seen recently in "Anna and the King"), Anita Mui ("Rouge"), Jackie Chan ("Rush Hour"), and Jet Li ("Lethal Weapon 4") became household names.
However, since those halcyon days, the Hong Kong film industry has fallen on hard times, with domestic product comprising an increasingly smaller share of the box office and the collapse of several time-honored production houses. On the one hand, a number of the established artists of the 'Hong Kong New Wave' migrated to Hollywood, wooed by the chance at greater opportunities in the North American film market, which led to a 'brain drain' in the talent pool. On the other hand, Hong Kong audiences have also grown more sophisticated in their cinematic tastes, preferring the higher production values (not to mention better storytelling) of big-budget American movies, which has been reflected in Hollywood blockbusters grabbing the lion's share of box office revenues in recent years. Finally, the quality of product in recent years has also been lacking, with poorly budgeted and poorly conceived mixes of action, romance, and dumb comedy being unleashed on unsuspecting audiences-- "The Hitman" and "G4 Option Zero" come to mind.
However, despite the dark cloud hanging over the former British colony's film industry, there have been a few bright spots in the latter-half of the Nineties, such as the runaway success of last year's Hong Kong-Japanese co-production "The Stormriders". Another bright spot would be "Beyond Hypothermia", a Hong Kong-Korean co-production from 1996, which has recently become available on DVD. With terrific performances by Lau Ching Wan (seen recently by Western audiences in "Black Mask") and Wu Chin Lin (the middle daughter in "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman"), an above average script (for a Hong Kong action film), and some great direction by Patrick Leung ("Somebody Up There Likes Me"), "Beyond Hypothermia" will re-affirm your faith that there are still some signs of life in the Hong Kong 'heroic bloodshed' genre.
The protagonist of "Beyond Hypothermia" is a nameless female assassin (Wu) who has been raised to be a killing machine by an 'aunt' (Shirley Wong). The film's title stems from Wu's character having a body temperature five degrees below normal, and not surprisingly, ice imagery is abound throughout the film, starting with the film's initial sequence that takes place in an icehouse. With no human contact outside of her contracted killings, the strikingly beautiful assassin finds solace at a local noodle eatery, where she 'warms up' after having dispatched her latest victim. It is here that she comes to know the affable and talkative proprietor (Lau), who helps her gradually reclaim her long-suppressed emotions, revealing the passionate and emotionally vulnerable woman underneath. Unfortunately, her reawakening is cut short when she finds herself the target of a hitman (Han Sang Woo) out to avenge the assassination of his boss, which leads to an emotionally wrenching and beautifully directed blood-and-bullets finale.
"Beyond Hypothermia" has at its emotional core the story of two lonely individuals caught up in circumstances beyond their control, and the painful consequences that they face as a result of their actions. Consequently, "Beyond Hypothermia" is at its best when it focuses on the budding relationship between the assassin and the noodle vendor, making good use of the subtle performances and chemistry between Wu and Lau. Wu gracefully handles the emotional transition that her character undergoes, which is highlighted in a pivotal scene in which her character takes pictures of herself for the first time, with each successive photograph melting away her icy cold demeanor. Lau, who has often been hailed as the 'working class' successor to Chow Yun-Fat, delivers an appropriately low-key performance. Together, the dynamic of their relationship provides emotional resonance for the film, an ingredient that is often missing in Hong Kong action cinema.
Action-wise, "Beyond Hypothermia" is no slouch either, especially in combination with some slick cinematography that emphasizes blue tones and subdued lighting effects. As mentioned earlier, the film's piece du resistance is the final sequence, which has Wu's character cornered by Korean gangsters, and over-the-top mayhem is counterpointed with a poignant ballad. If this sounds a lot like the church sequence in "The Killer", this is because Patrick Leung also served as assistant director on a number of John Woo's films, where he picked up the Hong Kong action king's sense of style and action choreography.
Unfortunately, a few imperfections mar an otherwise terrific example of post-John Woo 'heroic bloodshed'. As the film's antagonist, Han Sang Woo doesn't add much to the film's emotional intensity. Though there is a nice contrast established with his character arc moving in the opposite direction (he sheds all humanity to become a fearless killing machine), not much background or motivation is ascribed to his character, resulting in a rather flat and uninteresting villain. The script also develops a muddled sub-plot in Seoul that tries to establish the rivalries within the Korean mob. Unfortunately, in addition to being more confusing than helpful, it takes time away from the assassin-noodle vendor relationship, which is far more emotionally engaging. Fortunately, the elements of the film that do work are enough to counter the damage done by its weaker aspects.
Though "Beyond Hypothermia" is not as polished well crafted as some of the 'heroic bloodshed' films from Hong Kong's past, its skillful mix of poignant romance and visceral action makes it a worthwhile effort, thanks in part to director Patrick Leung's skillful direction and two noteworthy performances. With this said, "Beyond Hypothermia" just might be enough to rekindle your faith in what Hong Kong cinema has to offer.